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Book Review: Meaningful Stuff. Design That Lasts. by Jonathan Chapman, Review by Niklas Hermann Henke

Book Review: Meaningful Stuff. Design That Lasts. by Jonathan Chapman, Review by Niklas Hermann Henke

Title: Meaningful Stuff. Design That Lasts.

Author: Jonathan Chapman

Publisher: MIT Press

Year: 2021

ISBN: 9780262045728

Reviewed by: Niklas Hermann Henke (Information and Communication Science, Ph.D.), Scientific Work Package Leader at Capgemini Engineering (Toulouse, France) and Research Member of the GRESEC laboratory (University of Grenoble, France).

‘Never have capitalist societies owned so much, wanted so much, and wasted so much’ (p. 1). In Meaningful Stuff. Design That Lasts, Jonathan Chapman makes a profound argumentation for a sustainable design ethos. Although the book was published in 2021, its importance to current design practice is relevant as recent technological developments (particularly in relation to generative AI) make a long-term ecological design ethos essential. Chapman's book remains one of the most powerful ones on the subject for several reasons. Chapman mobilises a variety of data to analyse today's design culture and its impact on society and the environment, revealing the facts on questions such as: What rare materials are required to make digital devices? What social and environmental (hidden) externalities are associated with them? How long is the average life cycle of modern consumer goods compared to the time it takes to create the exploited resources? The facts associated with these questions are downright scandalous and point to weaknesses in design professions, such as their focus on producing short-lived products that are programmed to fail quickly (#planned obsolescence) or to be outlived by newer versions,

“In manufacturing consumer electronics-arguably one of the most socially and ecologically significant areas of design activity today-we produce forty tons of waste to manufacture one ton of products. Of that ton of products, 98 percent are discarded within just six months of purchase. In the use of energy and material alone, this sequence of events is less than 1 percent efficient. Or to put it another way, our prevailing system of production and consumption is over 99 percent inefficient.” (p. 47).

As a result of today’s non-sustainable economic system, it is expected that the oceans will contain more plastic than fish in 2050. The ecological catastrophe is compounded by social injustices and the worrying circumstances surrounding the extraction of conflict materials such as cassiterite, wolframite, coltan and gold ore. Based on a such a diverse range of data from different disciplines, Chapman criticises modern throw-away culture, planned obsolescence, stock-piling of just-in-case-possessions, mindless use of resources, and proposes perspectives for more sustainable design practices. He criticizes the fact that many modern consumer goods are produced in a way that make it impossible to repair them – as for example the glued interior of Apple’s AirPods. Consequently, in suburbs lies more valuable resources than in mines, as the percentage of gold in smartphones is higher than in rocks and earth extracted from a gold mine. However, it is less costly to extract gold from a gold mine, then to recycle smartphones. This represents a system failure. For companies, it is more profitable to make throw away products then repairable and lasting ones. Therefore, Chapman pledges for making the unseen social and ecological externalities of products (resources, pollution, social injustices) part of the design process. The design process should not only address the conception, production, and use of a product, but also its disposal. Too many designers are focused on too few touchpoints between users and products, leaving aside the supply-chain and disposal. Chapmans propositions are close to known approaches such as Cradle-to-Cradle, which have not found their implementation in most industrial design practices yet. Chapman proposes an understanding of how such an approach could be realized systematically.

The ecological consequences of modern consumerism are grounded in socio-psychological mechanisms that make an individual's consumption behaviour incredibly complex: “People buy things because of what they can do with them, what they can tell others about them, and what having them says about themselves.” (p. 6). To understand this complexity, Chapman mobilises the anthropological framework of fundamental philosophers such as Heidegger, Adorno and Weber, which he links to recent empirical findings in the field of design research and ecological economics. He examines in detail aspects of emotion, aesthetics, meaning, ideology, and even supernatural beliefs, all of which have an impact on our relationship with objects. The emerging complexity creates certain challenges for design professions, as it becomes increasingly difficult to address such a complexity in daily design practices (partly due to institutional restrictions or budgetary, political or time constraints). At the same time, designers can have a positive impact, as many aspects of a product need to be 'designed' - potentially in an environmentally sustainable way. As you read, bear in mind that the term "design" is used very broadly and that the book is aimed at, for example, product designers, UX designers, marketing specialists or communications consultants alike. It is not limited to design professions but a valuable source of reflection for everyone. The challenge for designers today is to design products with meaning. Not just superficial meaning, but a deep connection and emotional value. Chapman's book is not a blind critique of modern throwaway culture, but a detailed analysis of it, offering practical recommendations, such as incorporating more repair options into products. Repairing a product makes the user a co-creator, creating a more meaningful and lasting bond between the user and the product. “(…) we must design material things to last longer through their innate ability to change over time: things that are not finished and can be repaired and altered. This goal requires a new design philosophy of things that are deliberately incomplete, and things that stay in motion.” (p. 114). Chapman proposes an insightful pledge for a sustainable design ethos. It is a passionate argumentation for maintenance, repair, and care - a sustainable design approach for creating meaningful products that are transformative, eventually imperfect, and modifiable by users. This implies a use-culture based on collaboration, sharing, and repairing. It represents a more natural approach, opposed to the artificial focus on industrial perfection, which can be summarized with Chapman’s observation, referring to the Japanese worldview focused on imperfection, “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect.”

About the Reviewer: Niklas Henke is Scientific Work Package Leader at Capgemini Engineering in Toulouse and part of the research team Future of People@Work / Comm@Work since July 2023. He works at the intersection of Design and Communication Research, combining artistic with scientific perspectives. He worked for innovation- and design / advertising agencies based in France and Germany, as Creative Strategist, User Interface Designer, and as a Freelance User Experience Researcher. His research focuses on the role of creativity and the human body in the context of modern technological transformations. He teaches theoretical and practical design and communication courses in Grenoble, Paris, Cologne and Duesseldorf.